“In a way, we are all on a personal archaeological dig. The mysterious sands of our existence possess more than just an accumulation of our years and experiences. They also possess much more than our intellect can possibly account for. The reasons we dig and what we expect to find buried within our archaeology are now clear…If we are brave and persistent…and if we dig down carefully one stratum at a time, we will find the ideas and dreams we lost or discarded there. This debris is a treasure of great value. This deeply personal archaeological dig is a dirty and difficult work. I believe few people do this work, fearing they might find only emptiness and pain."
Mark A. Taylor in “Sandstone Sunsets: In Search of Everett Ruess”
The mysterious sands of our existence
The conflict in the spring of 1970 between Seward Mayor Bill Ullom and Police Chief Kenneth Heri had many facets. One included the priest at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 31-year-old Father Everett Wenrick and his relationship with the long-hairs he called “The New Frontiersmen.”
“I wasn’t the usual clergyman,” 82-year-old Wenrick said in a recent interview. “I had long hair and I wore beads, and I was kind of a ‘hippie’ clergyman. The Anchorage Daily News sent Slim Randles to Seward to do a story on me because they heard about this ‘hippie’ priest. So, he came down and, actually, I got to be friends with him.”
In later years, Wenrick officiated at Randles’ marriage in Talkeetna.
In Seward, Everett connected not only with the youth of the day, but also with Alaska’s adventurous spirit. In the summer of 1970, the priest joined a group who hiked to the Harding Ice Field. The excursion began on July 28 when they trekked up Lowell Canyon and over the saddle to Big Bear Mountain. In two and half days they reached a shelter built by local entrepreneurs who planned to bring tourists to the ice field for a snow machine adventure. The weather brought poor visibility and they spent two days in the shelter, later snow machining and exploring the area according to an August 6, 1970, Seward Phoenix Log article.
Father Wenrick – or “Ev” as the long-hairs called him – opened up a coffee shop in the downtown area for the young to display their artwork, sing their songs, and discuss contemporary issues.
“All this made all the “’dyed in the wool’ Episcopal people nervous,” he said.
With J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” popular reading at the time, Wenrick called the place, “Bag’s End.” He based it on his memories of the coffee shops he grew up with in Toledo, Ohio.
He also began hosting community gatherings at the St. Peter’s parsonage.
“Not content with holding only the Sunday morning service,” Randles reported, “Ev and his wife (Anne) began their Friday evening ‘things’ about two months ago. Everyone who shows up gets a free meal, well-balanced and nourishing. There are no sermons, no Bible readings, no benedictions. Asking the blessing before the meal is the only time a formal tie in with religion is mentioned.”
Like at the coffee shop, he encouraged people to discuss provocative issues, see things from both sides – to get to know each other and their various points of view.
Wenrick remembers John and Ginger Davidson attending these gatherings when they were in town, and occasionally seeing them at the coffee shop.
For some Seward citizens, these venues were too threatening, just too dangerous.
Wenrick saw his ministry as not only to his congregation, but also to the unchurched. He recognized that the “hippie” movement had a spiritual component to it. Many long hairs may have rejected organized religion, but they were seekers. Most were unchurched and he had a duty to them. Some in Seward suspected him of too much encouragement, of trying “to make Seward the hippie capital of the world.”
To some, Father Wenrick became connected with the hippies vs. the straights’ controversy, and the recent confrontation between the mayor and the police chief. When the mayor called upon the city council to enact a policy to drive the hippies out of town, Wenrick said it evolved into an attack upon him.
“Under the guise that I was peddling dope, which wasn’t true,” he said.
He arrived in Seward in 1968 and was gone before the end of 1971.
Randles attended and described one of Wenrick’s Friday evening gatherings or “things,” as there were called where he met both long-hairs and straights.
“The ‘straights’ included two school teachers, their families, and other members of the community curious about the get-together,” Randle wrote. “The ‘long-hairs’ included nearly all the ‘hippie community’ in Seward.”
There was a free meal, of course, but one long-hair told the reporter: “He’s really a cool guy. You can feel at home at his place, and, you know…he never says it, but I can tell he really wants to slip us a square meal once a week, too.”
Years later Wenrick agreed – “Sometimes it was the only good meal they got (that week).”
Randles arrived at the parsonage early that Friday, and only three others were there. By the evening’s end, there were more than 20 attendees. Randles felt right at home with his long hair and beard.
“The furniture was full of humanity as was most of the floor,” he observed. “with people visiting casually and eating cold cuts, bean soup, and salad.”
Six-month-old Jennifer Wenrick sat playing under blankets in the corner next to her mother, Anne. A stereo tape deck played Blood Sweat and Tears.
Wenrick wore a turtleneck and two strands of love beads. Randles finally got him alone in an adjoining room for an interview. They lighted their pipes. Since Wenrick had mostly an older congregation, the reporter wanted to know if his association with the long-hairs cost him any members?
“A few, perhaps,” the priest responded, “but, as you can see, I get 20 people here every Friday evening, and I feel that’s progress.”
His goal, he said, was to bring people together, “to help them understand each other, and bring down some of the imaginary walls that separate them. The older people in the community don’t realize that these young people are living according to the mores and ethics given them in childhood, just as the older people are living by the ethics and mores given them years before. These young people came to Alaska to find homes, and many times to raise families. They ask for only the same break these older people were given years before.”
Randles noted that Wenrick was, “evasive as to the attitude of higher church powers toward his befriending the ‘long-hairs,’ but evidently nothing has been done to discourage it.”
And why would the Episcopal Church officials discourage it?
“My bishop came down (to Seward), Bishop Gordon, and backed me one hundred percent,” Wenrick noted, “because I had a mission to the unchurched.”
Most in Seward knew little or nothing of Everett and Anne’s background in political activism – but it was no secret to the higher-ups in the Church.
Both Everett and Anne were born in 1939, in Ohio and Indiana, respectively. Anne graduated from Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Missouri in 1961 with a B.A. in Education. She met Everett when they both volunteered that summer for the Episcopal Church in Alaska at Fort Yukon. After their marriage on Aug. 20, 1962, at Vincennes, Indiana, they returned to Alaska and taught at Delta Junction and Sitka. The next summer they toured Europe on bikes and a motor scooter. In 1964 they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where Everett enrolled at the Episcopal Theological School.
In 1965, while Everett was still in seminary, he and a group of students went to Selma, Alabama to work in the civil rights movement’s anti-poverty program. In Wilcox and Lowndes Counties Everett and Anne helped tenant farmers by documenting cases of intimidation and eviction. Many of these evicted families spent the winters in tents.
“As evictions mounted in 1966,” Frye Gaillards wrote in “Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement That Changed America,” “Francis Walter and Everett Wenrick, an Episcopal seminarian who worked with Walter at the Selma Inter-Religious Project, began traveling through the country and taking depositions from those who had been summarily displaced. They found, among others, an eighty-year-old woman who was living in a shack on a white man’s place, too old to work on the farm anymore, with no family of her own to take care of her. The white man let her stay in the cabin for the token rent of five dollars a month, but when he learned she had voted in the Democratic primary, he demanded to know which candidates she supported. She told him proudly that she had voted for Richmond Flowers for governor – the state attorney general who had stood up on occasion for the rights of black people. The white man told her she had one month to move out.”
When the voting-right’s movement came to those counties, another black tenant told Walter and Wenrick that his landlord seemed to go crazy.
“There wasn’t a better man to work for,” the black farmer said, “but since this registration (among blacks) he’s been like a wild man.”
He showed up furious one day at his tenant’s cabin: “Get out of this house by sundown,” he shouted, “or I’ll tear the roof off.”
The violence these civil rights workers faced transcended mere words. Father Wenrick may have seemed like a naïve and idealistic hippie priest to some in Seward – his wife Anne, a sweet, innocent minister’s wife. But neither the long-hairs nor the straights – neither his congregation nor others in town – had any idea of the realistic hatred and violence Everett and Anne had faced in their courageous ministry in service to the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama. Nor of Everett’s connection to Jonathan Daniels, a fellow seminary student at Cambridge who was murdered in Selma.
“We weren’t super-close friends, but we knew each other and appreciated each other.
He recalled Daniels writing a story about his experiences in Selma before he died in which he said “Reality is kaleidoscopic in the South, in the Black Belt. Now you see it, now you don’t.”
Today at 82 years old, Everett Wenrick lives in Fairbanks not far from his two daughters and his granddaughter. His wife, Anne, died in 2017.
“I have a beautiful dog I take out every day for a run,” he said. “Her full name is Cara Mello – cause I got her from a musher who named all dogs after candy bars. She gave me the dog because the dog wasn’t working out for her. I call her Mello, and she is mellow. She doesn’t bark. She’s a wonderful companion.”
Talking with him today, it’s easy to see why he became popular among the young back the late 1960s and early 1970s – the countercultural, and the older Alaska pioneers, the hippie and the straight.
There is a friendliness, a sincerity, an authenticity in his voice. His passion for the causes he fought for are embedded in his stories. Whether one is churched or not, in his presence you know you’re dealing with a man who is real, who doesn’t just talk the talk – he’s walked it. And the walk included one of the famous marches with Martin Luther King from Selma to Birmingham with attempts to make it unbloodied across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
To be continued.
Doug Capra is the author of “The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords”. In addition to many Alaska history articles, he wrote forwards for two reprints of books by American artist Rockwell Kent. He has written poetry, essays, and plays. His most recent play, “A Social Distance” is published in the June 2021 Cirque magazine. Earlier parts of this series can be found online at sewardjournal.com. People who knew the Davidson or who have photographs, information, or letters, can contact the author at email@example.com.
Author’s Comment: I’ve received valuable and appreciated feedback about this series from those in and outside of Alaska. I have frustrated some with my occasional focus on the social and historical contexts of the period and moving away from the Driftwood Bay experience itself. I’ve tried to avoid that with flashbacks and flashforwards. In future parts, I’ll move much of the contextual side stories into sidebars and photo captions and try to push the homesteading story to the front. Much of the new information is arriving as I write, so for at least the next two or three installments, I’ll deal with some of these local stories that tie into the Davidson’s and this time period.